Lollipops have a long history in New Haven — a history that no one seems to know much about. Ostensibly, the handy sweets were invented here in 1892 when local resident George Smith first began poking sticks into balls of boiled sugar. In 1908, he developed a confectionary machine that could churn out 40 of the suckers per minute. Then in 1931, he and his business partner, Andrew Bradley, trademarked the name lollipop, borrowed from a contemporary racehorse that was particularly fast. A building on Grand Avenue in Wooster Square once housed the world’s first lollipop factory, but it has long since been redeveloped. During the Depression, the Bradley Smith Company went bankrupt, ceased all operations, and lost its trademark. The titular lollipop has belonged to the public domain ever since. Historians at the New Haven Museum haven’t a clue where to start searching for Smith’s revolutionary machine, and the uncertainty only begins there.
Consider the name: the word lollipop predates Smith and his trademark by more than 50 years; it’s featured in works by a group of 19th century novelists, including Charles Dickens. Their lollipops refer to a lozenge-like candy that lacked the defining stick: the word lolly referred to the tongue in Dickensian lingo, so a lollipop was logically an object — namely a candy — that one could quickly place, or pop, on his tongue (or something like that).
What’s more, consider the straightforward anatomy of the lollipop. The concept of sugar on a stick is a simple one. As early as the Middle Ages, feudal lords licked spheres of boiled sugar on ornate sticks. Ancient Egyptians preserved fruits and nuts in stiffened honey, once again with the practical addition of a stick.
The lollipop might be simple, but its story will always be one of uncertainty. Most kids who grew up in the United States after 1970 remember the same commercial — the oddly drawn, conspicuously nude boy, the anthropomorphic, academic-looking Mr. Owl, and the immortal question: “How many licks does it take to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop?”
Today’s chefs have reimagined the lollipop of our youth. The Modernist lollipop was devised in Spain several years ago by Ferran Adrià, chef of the critically acclaimed (though currently defunct) restaurant elBulli, which is set to reopen in 2014 as a kind of gastronomic think tank. The process involves heating isomalt — one of a class of chemicals known ambiguously as sugar alcohols — to precisely 120 degrees Celsius, at which point the crystals melt into syrup that will form a thin film across a metal ring, like a bubble wand dipped into a bottle of soap. A bead of aromatic oil is dripped onto the still-warm film of isomalt. As gravity pulls down the oil, the film bends like the image of space and time near a black hole, wrapping itself around the oil. When the isomalt completely surrounds the oil, it drips down in a narrow column and hardens as it cools. The result is a sphere of oil encased in a delicate shell of what tastes like sugar, fused to a thin stick composed of that same sugar-like substance. With the slightest lingual pressure, the sensitive lollipop erupts. It is extraordinary, unlike anything remembered from childhood.
Over the years, artists and musicians have scrutinized the lollipop. (The unexamined food is not worth eating!)In 1960, Alexander Calder completed Gallows and Lolllipops, the sculpture that stands on Beinecke Plaza. In 1958, the Chordettes sang the infectious, innocent-enough “Lollipop,” and, in 2008, Lil Wayne topped the charts with his own “Lollipop,” about a shawty who wanna lick the lollipop and the (w)rapper. The song captures the lollipop in its essence: a thing of uncertainty, of transformation and disillusionment, and beneath it all, not a small amount of innuendo and sexual tension — namely, the college experience on a stick.